One of the strangest places I’ve visited in thirty years of photographic travel is the island of Nauru. Said to be the world’s smallest independent republic, at the time I was there in 1983, it was also reportedly the world’s richest country. By now, I’m sure that the depletion of it’s primary export and the increasing wealth of oil producing countries have dethroned it from that
Nauru is a raised coral island, just south of the equator and southwest of Kiribati, with a land area of only 8.2 square miles. Its 1998 population was estimated at 10, 501. Nauruans are of mixed Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanesian origin, and account for about 58 % of the population, with 26 % other Pacific Islanders, 8 % Chinese and 8% Europeans. About 80% of the people are Christians. The major
languages are Nauruan and English.
Most Nauruans live alongside a coastal road that encircles the oval-shaped island. The remainder of the island is a central plateau, about 200 feet in elevation, and here lies the wealth of Nauru: rich deposits of calcium phosphate, the base for super-phosphate fertilizer, exported to Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan. In 1983, Nauru exported two million tons of phosphate, demand in the 90s, however, declined, and by 1997 exports were only a third of the 80s figures.
Visited by the British in 1798, annexed by Germany in 1888,
surrendered to Australian armed forces in 1914, Nauru was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. From 1942- was placed under a UN trusteeship in 1947, and gained its independence in 1968. Its governed by a unicameral parliament, a president elected by that parliament and an appointed cabinet. Nauru experienced political turmoil in the 1980s, but stability was restored in the 90s until 1999 when allegations were made that the government had poorly managed royalties from the phosphate mining. The following year witnessed further instability when parliament elected four presidents in less than three months. A new president elected in February 1997 was Nauru’s fifth in less than a year.
Nauru’s wealth through the years has been invested in foreign skyscraper office buildings, shipping lines, the national airlines, Air Nauru (which in 1983 had experienced annual losses of twenty to thirty million dollars), and even Broadway show, an income-eating failure. The Nauruans are so friendly, the traveler hopes some of the investments were good ones.